October 28, 2010
Stalking monster bucks in civilization's shadows.
In the soft yellow glow of a cemetery light I saw him clearly; his massive, deeply curving main beams and fantastic tines that appeared like tines on a vintage-era hay rake. He had come to mingle among the gravestones under the cover of darkness; feeding, no doubt, on the flowers and shrubbery left behind and planted by the living to comfort loved ones long dead. The buck swished his tail in mild irritation at the intruding headlights and slipped into shadow like a pretty woman in a crowd, moving away discreetly to avoid being accosted by wistful stares. I filed the image of that buck, and others I would see, securely in my mind. I imagined that rack floating up a trail beneath my stand, situated not half a mile away. I visualized my arrow slipping away, rocketing through his ribs -- his thick antlers in my fists. I could see it all so vividly.
Those late-night drives through the outskirts of Omaha, Neb., took their toll -- on my psyche and my physical state. I should have been sleeping, recharging from the frozen hours spent on stand. Yet I indulged in those late-night drives like an addict seeking a fix.
They were an intoxication I'd come to relish. I needed to confirm, again, that deer like that actually existed, that if only I put in my time, they would come. They were the biggest whitetail bucks I'd witnessed in 20 years of bowhunting them in many places.
Awash In Disappointment
I'd found success early -- if I could honestly label it such. He was a massive, long-tined buck I shot that first morning. The shot was a long one, requiring a 40-yard pin held high, threading carbon through woven branches of viciously thorned black locust, Osage orange and lithe, sinewy oaks. My arrow found him and pushed a 1½-inch mechanical broadhead through his vitals. He settled into a springy mat of leaves within sight of my stand and was finished just like that. Yet even before I released, I knew something was awry. I accomplished the difficult maneuver because nerves were not a factor -- recurring target panic failing to haunt me as it so often does under pressure. It was a shot I wouldn't have attempted had conditions been otherwise.
It was the gaunt, fork-horned buck, hurrying from behind, that snapped me to and primed my nerves as even a fawn-towing doe can while sitting in sub-zero weather; waiting, enduring, suffering so that the only way to continue is to play word games in your head to distract from cold and, most of all, boredom. The forkey rushed in from downwind and beneath my precarious perch without undue alarm. Stopping, he glanced over his shoulder with a palpable sense of expectation. I craned my neck severely, knowing I should be still but unable to help myself.
It was the rack -- floating apart, defying gravity -- that initially grabbed my attention as the heart-pounding buck advanced on the very trajectory as the forkhorn. My pulse accelerated a couple octaves and then, suddenly, I was awash in spiraling disappointment, as if I'd expected something to waken me from a wonderful dream that had become reality. There was no way to miss the crimson wash down his shoulders, the awful limp.
The forkey ducked through the gap in the nature-preserve boundary I guarded, the trophy buck closing the distance. Catching my scent, the buck veered severely into the vegetation, straightening his course after exiting my scent stream again. He was a dream buck, but all I could think at the time was how I was being robbed -- another dose of my typical whitetail luck, which has been nothing but bad and worse.
Because of this, because I somehow felt the part of a poacher, I really wasn't anxious to shoot that buck. But knew I must. So, I calmly threaded an arrow through 40-some yards of intertwined vegetation to settle the buck's troubles.
His rightful owner, the archer who'd delivered the first shaft, showed up shortly, walking in an impatient stoop, hounding flecks and splashes of vital life juices left behind like an unintentional trail of breadcrumbs. He was late for work.
A low whistle grabbed his attention, though for long seconds he blindly scanned the forest, unseeing. My camouflaged form came into focus slowly and I waved him over almost irritably and simply pointed. I should've been happy for him, congratulated him, taken pictures, shared in an ancient camaraderie. I couldn't. He'd invaded my small patch of territory; all I had to hang my hopes on -- this small parcel of property belonging to the busy investment banker.
Arriving on the scene -- bowhunting with new friends I'd met through a cousin I had only recently hunted with during a large family elk hunt -- it seemed blatantly obvious habitat. When asked about it, my new friends said they'd never bothered to ask for hunting permission. They shrugged to an obvious query. In that shrug was a hint of class consciousness. They didn't associate with the bluff-top money. I'm not so proud. I rang the bell aside the frosted-glass door of the luxurious mansion, told the bathrobed banker with the cordless phone glued to his ear I was visiting from Out West and would like to take home one of his whitetail bucks. He nodded affirmative, waved me away impatiently and closed the door in my face, missing not a beat of his telephone conversation.
It's my Western upbringing that made sitting in that stand so incongruous. I could plainly hear the play-by-play of the intersection baseball game and marveled at the language of today's youth. In another direction, a chained dog barked incessantly. A squeaking screen door, followed by the sound of kibble rattling into a metal bowl, quieted the pooch. His chain, or a vaccination tag, clanked the bowl's edge rhythmically.
As the sun settled and the temperature plummeted with coming night, the first does and spindly-antlered bucks made their move. Cars slid into drives and doors slammed. Children clambered out to excitedly hug mommy or daddy. The baseball game broke up as dinnertime curfews arrived. Glimpses of yellow-illuminated kitchen or den windows pierced the undergrowth and ravine-bottom treetops -- alarmingly near -- and I prayed this would be the evening a monster buck emerged just a few minutes ahead of schedule.
I could hear them, when the only light that remained was from the warm household panes; telltale shuffling atop frozen winter leaves. I remained, letting them pass so I could see them later, nibbling suburban shrubbery, standing adjacent to convenience-store parking lots and in the cemetery visiting the dead.
In whitetail hunting, when the rut'
s only a distant memory, when all that remains is hope and legal dates on a calendar, when temperatures drop so low you question your sanity (and your ability to draw your bow should a buck worth the effort actually appear), days run together to create a void shared only by the incarcerated, names of days ceasing to matter, or even register. There's only the day of the tempting six-point buck, the day of the doe parade, of the distant buck offering no shot but causing muscles to twitch involuntarily because you see it's actually possible -- if only you occupied that tree over there. The days of nothing cease to even exist.
Another morning arrived, and I sat stiff and cold with clenched teeth. It soon became the morning of the deer-chasing dogs. The first frantic doe passed, skidding to a momentary halt just beneath me before bounding away again. There was a small buck, too. Then the chunky chocolate Lab and his Chow-mix cohort arrived, pissing on everything in sight. I cursed them silently and worked to convince myself deer would accept it all as part of their suburban existence.
Still later, there was the birdwatcher in bright blue puffy down, Eastern bird identification book in hand and expensive German binoculars slung around a delicate neck. I whistled. She turned, swiping carrot-hued bangs from jade eyes. I flexed a couple fingers in way of waving. She pulled head and neck into her shoulders turtle-like, affected an apologetic grin and made a show of slipping away with great caution -- theatrical, Elmer Fudd-ish stalking -- as if in doing so deer wouldn't note the intrusion. Only then did it hit me another weekend has arrived. It should've registered earlier, the din of children's play suddenly coming to me from the streets above.
My new friends, dedicated as they were to spending long hours high in trees, all related tales of passing pedestrians, all oddly lewd in content. There have been well-dressed women stopping beneath treestands to relieve themselves. The best story involved a pimple-faced couple feverishly stripping, wasting no time in breathlessly coupling. My friend quietly informed them of their logistical error before things became too heated, sending them scrambling in embarrassment. He did this, no doubt, out of fear of losing his hunting rights; not exactly of a gentlemanly demeanor. He's serious about his whitetail hunting.
I hadn't been so lucky -- only truant canines and a fully-clothed bird watcher with red hair. People aren't so inclined to bare themselves during late season.
The new weekend meant the season was coming to its conclusion -- Sunday. I'd understood this all along, but had been occupied with other thoughts. It also meant the time had arrived to shoot; something, anything.
Yet, when presented with fresh opportunities -- does all -- I could not coax myself into action. Not that I have anything against killing does, believing it necessary in the scheme of things. It's just that I had no other place to sit, really, other than this gap in a chain-link fence, and I was afraid of squandering an opportunity at a buck. That's how I managed to go the distance and witness the last evening of the season with nothing to show for all my suffering. The sun departed without fanfare, and the temperature dropped in quick increments.
Parking Lot Buck
Soon enough, I heard the crunch of crisp, frosty leaves. The buck was not massive, but larger than others that braved my funnel. There was no doubt I'd take him given the chance. He took his time, light failing at the same pace as the windows blinking into focus behind me. I glanced at my fiber optic pin and assured myself I have time. The buck's interest in whatever had held him suddenly waned, and he turned and ambled through my hole with confidence.
He was walking briskly. I found my anchor as he entered a shooting lane on the correct side of the fence. I whistled quietly but he didn't miss a step. I swung the pin to his shoulder and released. Before the arrow cleared the rest, the buck stopped cold and ducked severely. The light carbon shaft, tipped with its aggressive mechanical head, quivered to an abrupt halt as if it met oak planking. The buck scrambled up the fence on three legs, moving toward the mansion.
I spewed venom, seeing the splintered arrow laying two steps from where it met uncompromising bone. I decided climbing down to make an assessment wasn't too hasty, so I dropped my bow into cushioning leaves, no longer concerned with the hard-earned tuning slowly acquired months ago. My season was finished.
Holding the stubbed, blood-tipped arrow parallel a fresh shaft from my quiver, I discovered there was more missing than I suspected; maybe eight or nine inches. Maybe enough to reach vitals. It was the thread of encouragement I desperately needed to calm my rage.
I managed to wait 15 minutes before picking up the trail. Blood was sporadic and progress slow. The trail wanted to angle toward the banker's house, but I convinced myself no self-respecting deer would venture so close to man, especially while wounded and hurting. I was on hands and knees, inspecting the last of the blood, when a security light on the nearby house flashed on. The carport was empty and windows dark. No one was home.
I marked last blood and marched beneath the light, inspecting the angle of the fixture and pondering where an animal could pass to activate it. I saw a phosphorescent glint. Blood -- my deer's blood.
Back-trailing, I moved only a short distance before discovering a matted bed, greasy with dark blood. I could see the house clearly and knew I'd been too hasty. I'd jumped him from his bed; though it's obvious I'd inflicted serious damage. So I waited, anxiously considering tomorrow's long journey home, the security light blinking off to leave me with only my thoughts. A car swung impatiently into the drive. I heard a door slam, and lights began to flick on in a flurry of activity. I circled away, not wanting to be mistaken for a Peeping Tom.
The spoor crossed a point of trees, continuing downhill and cutting the corner of a shadowy city park, past the heavily chained swing sets, spring-mounted fiberglass horses and merry-go-round, mounting pavement. There, at the far edge of the Presbyterian church parking lot, I discovered my buck, lying like a discarded heap of rubbish. A dim light escaped the stained-glass windows and I squatted and smoothed the luxurious winter coat. I was suddenly exhausted, drained and cold.
Figures began to flow from the steeply eaved entryway and climb into vehicles, exhaust cutting the cold in long, white plumes. Seven cars pulled away, headlights flashing across my still form. The eighth driver noticed me, waving cordially as if addressing neighbors out for a walk. I returned the gesture, as if nothing out of the ordinary has transpired.
When the parking lot emptied, I crossed the spooky park shivering and descended the low ridge to skirt the house corner at a polite distance. A window app
eared like a flash, and I froze like a deer caught in headlights. A woman swathed in thick terrycloth tread shockingly close and paused before a monstrous, bevel-glassed mirror, taking impatient swipes at carrot-hued hair with a wooden brush. The bird watcher. I was too caught off guard to flee. The hairbrush laid aside, the robe slipped to the floor and I took in the lovely figure momentarily, just a second, before turning away by sheer power of will and making my way downhill. A stand needed pulling, and my new friends no doubt anxiously contemplated my belated return.